Q & A with George Abou-Daoud: On Township, One Bad Review, and Why "Nobody Cared" About District
Kristin KirganGeorge Abou-Daoud
Just a couple of weeks ago, George Abou-Daoud owned seven restaurants in Los Angeles (The Bowery, Delancey, Gelatovino, The Mercantile, The Mission Cantina, Rosewood Tavern, Tamarind Ave. Deli). But as of last week, he has an eighth, Township Saloon, which begins serving lunch today, and stays open until 2 a.m.
But while the vast majority of his restaurants can be found in one stretch of Hollywood, his second newest, Rosewood Tavern, is a bit further west. That restaurant was also the subject of a not-so-kind review on these very pages.
We met with Abou-Daoud at that same Rosewood Tavern -- prior to Township's opening -- to talk about his his newest restaurant, the closure of his old one, his thoughts on the review, and a few other things. For our full interview with the successful restaurateur, read on.
Kristin KirganGeorge Abou-Daoud
Squid Ink: Just on the pages of this publication, you've been referred to as, "the unofficial mayor of East Hollywood," "the prince of East Hollywood," "the de facto mayor of Sunset in Hollywood," and, "the mogul whose lounges are docked along Sunset Boulevard like ocean liners." What do you think when you hear that?
George Abou-Daoud: I think that it's not East Hollywood. The geography is incorrect. East Hollywood runs from Western to Vermont. Where I am is in Central Hollywood. It's the middle of Hollywood. The center-center of Hollywood, Hollywood proper, is Highland to the freeway. That's the middle of Hollywood. So that's what I have to say is that it's not East. And every time I see that, I'm like, "do you not know where East Hollywood is?" Otherwise, I think they're all right.
SI: You think they're all right?
GA: I think they're all right, yeah. People, yeah. People do call me the mayor of Hollywood. I feel like a lot of what happens in the area revolves around my places. There are a lot of people who hold meetings, a lot of people have gotten married, who get hitched, who get together, who write books, who work on screenplays, who just finished a movie, or did a rap, all sorts of things kind of revolve around it. You kinda can't get away from that.
SI: Opening a restaurant takes a lot of time and a lot of money. It's hard to open even one restaurant, yet you have seven right now, with an eighth on the way. How did that happen?
GA: Well, I opened the Bowery, well, the Bowery's gonna be exactly six years old [this] month. And you know, it's noted as the first gastropub in Los Angeles. The first of its kind. Then my friends opened the Village Idiot over here, and then everything came after that. In terms of opening the restaurants, there's so many levels of everything. Opening a restaurant runs at you everything on the financial side, legal side. Everything from the city, county, state, design, construction, build-out, many agencies, menu, food, employment, the decor following that, everything you need to use to run the restaurant...
There are just an unbelievable amount of things that you have to do to get open, but, there's no formula for it. Whatever I feel is right that happens next is what happens next. And unlike the first three times I did it, I now have more people working for me. The first three times, I did it solo, which was crazy. But now I have people working for me, so I don't really have to do every single detail. I can delegate a lot of it to some good people. So I don't have to handle every aspect of it.
SI: So why restaurants? What made you want to do that?
GA: I have a huge passion for food. And the other great about the restaurant business is that it's a very social business. I feel like I have people at my house every night. The only difference is that I don't have to cook everything, and I don't have to do the dishes.
SI: Or front the bill for everybody.
GA: Actually they pay me. They pay me to come to my house. But I, in return, give people a good time, and that's what it's all about. It's all about enjoying your life. Going out, seeing people, mingling, meeting new people, having a great drink, having something you haven't had before, trying a new beer, trying a new scotch, trying a new dish, or coming back for a dish that you had before that you love, and you had to come back for it. But, you know, before we started isolating ourselves in suburbia, everybody lived in cities, and before that, people lived in denser areas, were in tribes, or moved together, and there was a lot of socialization.
I think the intention of us as humans is to be together congregating. Meeting, talking, and on occasion, isolating ourselves. But for the most part, I think, we rely on each other. Obviously. All humans rely on each other. Everybody has specialties. Everybody has special trades and everybody has their specialty. Getting together is, to me, the magic of having a restaurant.
SI: So, as you probably know, there was a review of Rosewood Tavern published in Squid Ink. It was a pretty negative review.
GA: I saw that. I was overseas when that came out.
SI: You have some thoughts on it, I would imagine.
GA: I do. A couple things. First thing I should say is, I'm not a big fan of when food critics come to places like Rosewood Tavern. Food critics are intended for places that build up the notion, the idea, of a chef. Or have a person there who is aspiring to be a great chef, or aspiring to be any kind of chef. And that's what the critics are for. You go there and you review their food. You follow that chef through their career, or you follow that restaurant. Rosewood Tavern, and all my places, are not places that you come in for a food review. They're places that are everyday places for people. And my view -- whatever the critic said, whatever she wrote, is irrelevant. Because it's still crazy busy here. People love it here.
And I'm also not fond of people who don't have any formal culinary skill, or food reviewing skill, and then jump into it as though that's something that they're a professional at. If you've never worked in a restaurant, don't be a judge of a restaurant. If you've never done any other trade, if you've never done that thing, you're not allowed to criticize it. You should have done that, you should do something in your life, and then you can go back and gauge it. You can be an announcer in the NFL if you've played football before. If you were involved, or you coached football. If you're involved in that realm, and you've done it, then feel free to criticize, because you know what it's all about. But if you haven't, if you've never owned a restaurant, if you've never run a kitchen, you've never been at the top of that, in doing a restaurant? Then I don't even want to even listen to what you have to say.
SI: Maybe in an ideal world, everybody would have done everything before they went into that field, but...
GA: I know what you're saying. I feel like, if you're a critic, then you should either have extensive knowledge of the subject matter, or have done it before. If you're a critic. Because that's what you're doing. So if you're going to criticize, then know what you're talking about. On all levels, and in detail, and back it up. I realize there are some food critics who haven't worked in restaurants, but they do really, really understand food. Not just going into it and saying, "I already know this." There are a lot of people who take further effort to learn what they're doing. And they go out of their way to focus on understanding the subject matter. So not just saying, "I know it," but, "I'm going to learn this. I want to really know what I'm doing here. So if somebody says something, I can back it up."
The funny thing with the restaurant business is, it's hard to gauge some nights. Some nights, if it's a very busy night, and everybody comes at once, a lot of people who aren't in the business don't realize, it's difficult to get everything out at once. And to make sure everything is out a hundred percent. Unless you want to wait longer -- and then people are complaining that they're waiting longer. But what are you supposed to do, you know? You want to find a happy medium. You want to put out great food, you want to have great service, but understand, if you all came at the same time, it gets a little bit difficult. Everybody tries their best...at any restaurant. Every restaurant. Unless you scoop it out and put it on a plate. Unless you're doing that.
SI: You mentioned that The Bowery calls itself L.A.'s first gastropub. So does Ford's Filling Station.
GA: I never saw Ford's Filling Station as a gastropub. I saw it as a restaurant. It's always been. And it's very cheffy. Very cheffy. Very... I didn't even know that. It's not even a pub, it doesn't even feel like a pub, it feels like a restaurant. There's a little bar on the corner, and then there's a lot of tables out there on the floor. Which to me is a restaurant. You know, a pub, anything, if you use the word pub, you're bar-centric, with great food. If you're gonna use the word "pub." You could call yourself L.A.'s first gastro-semi-small bar-restaurant-pub, but this is a pub. This feels like a pub. It's bar-centric, with great food. That is what a gastro-pub primarily is. So I'm not sure why they would have gone that route. Also, I think, I had been there a couple times. The clientele is very different too. It's a much older crowd. A lot people dining in the older scene aren't really going out to pubs either, so by the definition of the crowd...
When I say older, I mean, you know, 50s, 60s. Obviously great people, but they're not really going out for a pub kind of night. And, by the way, I'm not the only person who said Bowery is the first gastropub. It's widely, widely spoken that way.
SI: Yeah, they're just the only two places I've heard make that claim at all. I guess gastropub is one of those weird terms.
GA: Yeah. What Bowery was, and then what Delancey became, what Rosewood is, what all my places are, is they're places for the people. When I came to Los Angeles and in the years I lived here, I found that Los Angeles had an abundance of bars. They had an abundance of lounges, and clubs, and restaurants. But where were the places where I could eat at the bar and feel like I'm a civilized human too. Because I want to eat at the bar. I love sitting at the bar. That wasn't normal here. You know what everybody told me in L.A. when I went out to eat? I could have a drink and wait at the bar. I said really? Because I want to eat at the bar. The bar is the waiting area for so many places. And I want to say, before Bowery, I don't ever recall going anywhere where someone said to me -- you know, a place with good food -- said to me, "you can dine at the bar." It was, "sure, yeah, you can grab a bar menu."
That term, "bar menu." What is a bar menu? Why don't you just serve the same food at the bar that you're serving at the table? What's the difference? You can wait at the bar, you can have the bar menu. I just never understood that whole thing. So Bowery was the kind of place where, you know what? The bar's the focus here, and it's a dining table. It's one big dining table. And all my restaurants are the same in that sense. It's all about socialization. You can sit at the bar and meet people, all the time. Tables tend to isolate people, even though you can do it -- when tables are closer people do talk. But that's the magic of it. And anybody can say this, that, or whatever. But I do remember how it always was out here, and that's what made it so uncomfortable, but Bowery was open for two, three years, before anything else like that came out. And now you look, and everywhere, there's something-this tavern, something-this pub, all in the same genre of what it was, which is great. It's great to see that, because that's what L.A. really needed.
And so there's a lot of great places that are open now, all over the city, that are calling themselves gastropub, or tavern, or just pub, or a certain dining hall, or whatever, but they're in that same vein. They're in that same genre of what that was. The success of that did more than just do great for me. I think it also spawned a whole movement of people saying, "you know what? This is the kind of thing we need more of." And mind you, I didn't make this idea up. This is in every great city in the world -- there are places like this. In fact, it's the most common type of place. But why L.A. never really developed that before makes no sense to me. And a lot of places in L.A., as you know, had closed windows. A lot of places. Even when I moved out here. The walls were closed up, there were no windows, you know. I started opening windows and opening fronts. Bigger windows, big bars, great food, festive environments, it's something we really, really needed more of. I never knew where I wanted to go out. I either had to choose this restaurant, I had sit and dine here, sit at this table here, or I had to go to a lounge, with scatterings of modern, ugly looking furniture, with uncomfortable curved arms, or I had to go to a club where I couldn't hear myself, or I had to go to a bar that served 14-day-old Buffalo wings, with stale celery sticks. I just couldn't get what I was looking for.
I didn't want that. I wanted to have a place that had good food, accessible food, yummy, great drinks, great environment, great staff, friendly people, nobody telling me to isolate myself over here, and just go in that corner, sit at that table, or sit on this wall. It's like school. This is your desk, this is your desk, this is your desk. I don't like that. My places are all about... and you can see, whether it be communal tables, or closed tables, you have all kinds of people sitting next to each other, having a great time, and that's the magic of the Bowery Street restaurants. It's more than just about going out to eat. It's more than just going out to have a drink. It's also about socialization, enjoying your life, having a good time. Making the most of it. And obviously, the public has spoken. They're all very popular, and they're all very near each other. I'm not making this up. It's there.
SI: Your next restaurant will be called Township. What is it, and when can we expect to see it?
GA: Township is Americana comfort fare.
SI: Americana comfort fare?
GA: It's gonna be heavy on the bourbons. Rye whiskey, American whiskey, corn whiskeys, all the great stuff that's made here. And I'm gonna have craft American beers on draft, and the entire menu is dedicated to American food. Americana food. And when I say American, I don't mean the newer wave of the beautiful ethnic food that has been blended in. Which obviously can be considered American food too. But I'm talking more about the earlier decades, and the things that have stuck around. Obviously there's one territory in the entire country that has had the longest stretch of maintaining the largest amount of their original culinary items, which is kind of in the South. Mostly Louisiana and New Orleans. A lot of other areas of the country have blended in more with ethnic cuisine, a lot of other ares have been beaten up by fast food. So it's taken away.
I can tell you, the menu is something that goes back and fourth between different regions. I have Southern fried chicken on the menu. I also have a Yankee pot roast. Or a Pacific Northwest cedar plank salmon. Mepmhis-style baby back ribs, a Louisiana gumbo, oyster po' boys, oyster Rockefeller, Texas chili. It is a very, very, very accessible American comfort menu, in, mind you, what's going to be a very great space. I was taking the items that were, I think, quintessential American, or developed here in the U.S. There are other items which are great American dishes, but they're also closer to their original roots than they are American. Poke, in Hawaii, is a great dish. But soy, and poke, is much more Pacific Rim than it is originally American. There's dishes like the the modified kung pao chicken, and obviously here in California, the burrito, and avocado soup.
SI: Very different from the versions in Mexico, certainly.
GA: But they're certainly much closer in their roots, to their origins than they are to here.
SI: Well a lot of Southern food comes from people arriving with ingredients -- against their will -- and finding a way to make something with it.
GA: That is exactly right. That's the basis of this menu. In terms of opening, I'm gonna say it's gonna be early October. We're not far off.
SI: That's close.
GA: That's very close.
SI: So why did District close? That was the same space as Township, right?
SI: It is the place, in terms of the general food writing community, that they like the place the most, in terms of reviewers and things like that.
GA: Okay. I have a lot to say about this.
GA: I'm happy that they liked the food, but the rest of the world didn't. Okay? The place was empty almost every night. We had a few people coming in every night. So we had the critics. Great. We had the people coming in to write the reviews. Great. But nobody else came in. So what's the point of leaving it open? Nobody cared. Nobody cared about the menu, nobody cared about the food, except the food critics. Which is wonderful, and I'm glad they enjoyed themselves, but the public didn't care. The actual people that you open a restaurant for didn't care. And that's the problem. You can't just open a place and not have it...
And to tell you the truth, it's the only place where I didn't do the menu myself. I usually write the menus, execute the menus, you know, and all the other places, it works very well for me. And over here, it's the one place it didn't happen, and nobody really cared. If there's any reason, that's it. Nobody cared. And I know the writer from your newspaper made a comment about "closing the crown jewel," or whatever, some mockery sentence which made no sense to me, but this is what I mean by, "people just don't understand." If you don't really know what happened, then you can't criticize. If you really want to know what happened, why don't you ask me first? Why don't you ask somebody why it closed? There were other issues with personnel, and I'm not going to say any names, and I'm not going to say anything negative. But it all built into why the restaurant closed. I am too righteous of a person to speak negatively of people in print.
SI: So I'm gonna ask you one last question. Do you think you're misunderstood, by and large, by professional food writers?
GA: No, honestly, I don't even care. I don't care. There are the food writers who are friends of mine who love my stuff. There was only one review that I ever read that was really... that one. I've never really read anything else that... Irene Virbilla did a review of District. That wasn't my food. Um, Patruck Kuh did an L.A. Magazine write-up, in which wrote glowing things about me, but not about the food at District. Other than that, I can't say why that would even come in question, because it's never really been an issue. No one's ever really criticized, or not criticized, either way. I think in general, I always consider myself a man of the people. I'm doing this for myself, I'm doing this for the people. For us to all enjoy our lives. I want people in L.A. to elevate their enjoyment, their socialization. I want people to come together on a different level. I don't like the separations of how people pocket themselves in Los Angeles. We're all here in a great big city. Let's make it more fun, let's enjoy ourselves more, let's congregate more.
Food critics haven't really put me down, at all. My places don't get food reviews, which is perfect. That's exactly what I want. I don't want the food reviews. I don't need the food reviews, because the wouldn't be open for so long, and busy every day, if people weren't like that. There's no reason to have a food review. Food reviews, like I said before, they're intended for a chef who's looking for recognition, or a restaurant that's looking for recognition. In that sense, that's what food reviewers are for. They're not for my places. My places are for the people. Purely, a hundred percent for and by the people.
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